Alan Wake review
Alan Wake: Writer, husband, demon slayer
Developer and Publisher: Remedy Entertainment
The Finnish city of Espoo is best known for Children Of Bodom, who were once a good band but are now complete garbage, but it also hosts a game development studio known as Remedy Entertainment. You may remember them as the developer of gamers such as Max Payne, Max Payne 2 and Alan Wake. "But wait a minute, aren't you reviewing the latter right now?" - well, yeah, but if you forgot or you were in a comatose state between 2008 and now, Alan Wake was released as an Xbox 360 exclusive title (hey kids, remember when consoles had console exclusive games? When the console war was about Mario VS Sonic instead of how much the Xbox 360 sold versus how much the Playstation 3 sold? Good times, kids). It was a huge hit, but Playstation 3 and PC gamers were a little annoyed that they didn't get to experience it, so Remedy themselves ported it over to the PC - but not without giving the PS3 players a huge middle finger in the face - and did a fantastic job of such, with many options to make the PC experience one to remember. Perhaps they were more technical, but eh, it makes PC gamers happy, so I'd consider it a success. Plus, the game itself is pretty good, so I, too, was happy.
Alan Wake starts off by taking a vacation in Bright Falls with his wife, Alice. The idea was to find some inspiration to write because he had a huge case of writer's block (hey, something I can identify with!) and I imagine he didn't want to sell out and write a generic thriller. He's given a key to a cabin at Cauldron Lake... which isn't actually where he's staying, but nevertheless, he takes it and from there, shit goes down. Alice gets taken by a dark entity and drowns in the water, and Alan blacks out. A week later, he awakens from his coma and now has to find Alice, believing that she's not dead and that it could've all been a hallucination... which it sort of is, but not really, but it is - and that's what Alan Wake's story entails. It talks about the supernatural, and if it really exists, or if this was all a hallucination due to the events that have transpired. What makes things weirder is that it turns out, he had supposedly written a manuscript during the week that he was in that coma... and it's coming to life!
Based on all of that, the story sounds like a real winner, right? Absolutely! It does a lot in its power to keep you on the edge of your seat as you're given details regarding the plot not just in the manuscript pages you may or may not find (more on that later), but also in the events that unfold in the game's various cutscenes. The manuscripts gives you more insight as to what's going on while the cutscenes – whether it's a scripted event or an actual cutscene (as in, there's a reason it's called a CUTscene) – show you the events that unfold. As is expected, when events unfold, they do so with reason, which is to progress the story, give you just enough to pique your curiosity while still feeling like you've learned something new or extra about Alan or the circumstances of which he's in, amongst other things. Really, it's one of those games whose stories must be experienced to really see why it's so good, rather than just read about it in a review.
It is all amplified by the atmosphere. Usually, I'd discuss graphics and sound after talking about how the game plays, but this is one of the few games where they really tie into the story. From a technical standpoint, Alan Wake does look brilliant, but it's not the well rendered forest and almost lifelike cabins that do it any justice – it's the lighting and coloring that brings this game to life. Bright Falls during the day looks exactly like a small town ought to, and the bright but slightly dull color scheme and lighting really helps it look like there's totally nothing suspicious about it. When the sun sets, however, that's when it starts to show its true colors, with somewhat vivid and very dark colors to give off the oogie boogie feeling (not to be confused with the animated burlap sack of bugs of the same name), as if your suspicions of it being more than meets the eye are coming true.
All of this manages to pull you in as it all looks very convincing and when most scenes take place during gameplay, keeping yourself immersed is quite an easy feat. The forest is convincingly dark – it's not pitch black, but it can get a bit hard to see without some light, while the inside of caves are pitch black, as would be the inside of cabins if it wasn't for all the windows they have and the fact that the moon is always bright. Perhaps some people can pick on a few jerky frames of animation when Alan runs during the game and any other small imperfections, but none of them really broke the immersion for me when the dark atmosphere kept on drawing me in. Oh, and if you're wondering if this is where the PC port feels vastly superior to the original, well, you'd be halfway there. There are plenty of graphical options, like adjusting the depth of textures, shadows, v-sync and field of view, amongst plenty of minor options, so if you have just upgraded your PC and want to test it on something that isn't the eternally overrated Crysis, try this game on for size.
A significant contributer to the atmosphere is the sound design. The soundtrack is what you'd expect from a thriller – either nothing or something that's low key when nothing's happening to make the dark forest seem rather unsettling or the light town of Bright Falls seem fine and dandy, or the music is nice and loud whenever you're in a fight or an intense cutscene. It's the kind of soundtrack that, regardless of mood, always manages to suck you in because each song sounds just right for the moment that they're played at. Not to mention the use of licensed songs... you usually hear them open and close episodes ala a TV series, though they're heard a few times during cutscenes and gameplay segments too, and like the original songs... they just fit really well and sound great. Ditto for the voice acting, which is practically pitch perfect when given what they have to say at whatever point they're at. Alan's narration during the game gets bonus points for standing out without feeling intrusive, mostly because when you think about it, it's just him thinking out loud, but the emotion behind his narration feels just right in each given situation. Oh, the others all play their parts well... I just think Alan's voice acting stands out as the best performance in the game. Having said that, the demonic voices from the Taken (the enemies in the game) help you remember that walking in a forest at night can be rather unsettling...
It's a good thing that it has all of that going for it – otherwise, I'd be wondering why people liked this game so much... sadly ladies and gentlemen, the gameplay, while still good, is not as well executed as the story. For the most part, you'll be walking though certain sections of Bright Falls during the day in order to set up the events of the action oriented night time segments. What we get during the day, however, is just “walk with me to get story”. There are maybe a few opportunities to explore bits of the town, but not much more than a small area or whatever sections of a building you're able to access, and your rewards for doing so will be collectibles that are mostly for the sake of acquiring achievements... oh, and some manuscript pages. I was actually very disappointed by that, because the town was brimming with personality and I really wanted to explore it... you know, when it's safe and the threat of getting *bleep* by the ghoulies isn't there. But hey, troubled development; what can you really do?
Contrary to popular belief, this is not supposed to play like a survival horror game. It may have elements of such, but at the end of the day, it is a highly immersing action game and it shows with (mercifully) semi frequent checkpoints and plenty of supplies, such as ammo for your guns and batteries for your flashlight. Your flashlight isn't just for exploring dark caves – the enemies, who appear to be possessed rednecks, are surrounded by a dark aura that must be extinguished by light, and whether it's your flashlight or a light source nearby, just note that not extinguishing the darkness will make them immune to your bullets. You could use flares that you find to keep up a consistent light source that'll affect all enemies within a reasonably sized radius, or use flashbangs and the flare gun, which both practically serve as an insta-kill item and weapon respectively, though be aware that they are rare.
Upon first impression, the combat will feel a bit stiff and frustrating. There is no cover system to speak of and a good amount of fights take place in open areas can seem rather daunting, and when enemies can come from anywhere in the darkness, it can induce some paranoia, especially if you're running low on health, your torch isn't restoring its energy quickly enough and – dare I say it – you don't have much ammo to spare. Plus it doesn't help that when you're in aiming mode, the camera zooms close up to Alan's head, meaning you won't be able to see what's behind you. Dying isn't too hard either. If you're playing on the easy or normal difficulty modes, it's not a huge issue, but on hard and the unlockable Nightmare difficulty modes, Alan can't take too many hits while enemies can, and they tend to not only attack in packs, but also either throw weapons at you, or try to juggle you and not ever let you out. In essence, enemies can seem cheap, managing to kick your ass if you're not smart in the way you take them out.
Thankfully, like with Silent Hill: Downpour, it clicks once you go through a few encounters. The brilliance of their AI shines as they'll attack you in formations that'll force you to make quick decisions – should you shine your flashlight on the long range attackers, or take down the ones closing in on you? Should you use that flare or that flashbang to get out of there? Combat can get surprisingly intense as you progress throughout the game, especially if you pick the Nightmare difficulty setting. With that said, combat can be rather annoying at times, especially when you have to run away (or run somewhere else) and deal with seemingly infinitely spawning enemies that have a penchant for almost literally stabbing you in the back – sometimes, it aids in being intense, but at other times, it's just cheap bullshit that'll piss you off.
Oh, I'm just easing you into what this game really does wrong. Unfortunately, while Alan Wake begins as a mostly fantastic game, it regresses into mediocrity for a while. Enter episode 5, where nary a moment felt inspired and the fights started to feel cookie cutter at best. While going through that episode, it makes you become grateful for how well paced the four prior episodes felt. At this point however, either every fight started to blend together, or every scripted event started to blend together because they tended to feel overdone as it's more ADD-driven than the rest. Episode 6 is better, but not by a whole lot. Towards the end, everything just feels overdone and you'd be praying for it to end by the halfway point. If you have the Xbox 360 version and you are against DLC (like I am), this will kill your game playing experience and the ambiguous ending is all you'll get in the end... sure, it's one that's well written, but games ought to be games first and foremost (despite what some pretentious asshole says), and when the gameplay starts to drag down, so does the rest of the game, despite a good story. However, if you bought the DLC or you have the PC version, you'll be grateful to know that the two bonus episodes – The Signal and The Writer - make up for the lackluster episodes by nailing what they intended to do just right and end in such a satisfying way that if I was an Xbox 360 owner... I'd gladly buy the DLC.
Initially, Alan Wake was a fantastic game, but as it went on, mild annoyances got worse, which does take you out of the story a bit, and episodes 5 and 6 happened. The PC version mercifully included the two bonus episodes, which made the now latter half much more tolerable and more on par with the first half. Had it not been for them, you could say that Alan Wake suffered from having too few ideas under its sleeve to carry on an otherwise intruiging tale of paranoia and the supernatural. It's a shame too, because the first four episodes, for the most part, are the best moments I've experienced in a third person shooter this generation, and if that's not saying much, then this should – the first four episodes are *bleep*ing brilliant and are worth the price of admission alone. Add in the DLC episodes, and you've gotten yourself quite a deal here.
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